The Language of Poverty

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Madeleine Naleski, The Catholic University of America

Debunking the complexities of rhetorical reality can make being honest seem harsh, and complicating words and phrases with “politically correct” terms can lead to more consequences. It seems that members of society have increasingly become much more sensitive to which words are used when, where, and with whom. One example of this sensitivity includes the language of poverty. One uses certain words depending on their audience, and one can see the dependence plainly in the use of synonyms for a poor person. The phrase “low-income” has become a rather popular replacement for “poor”, especially in articles and other written documents. But when is one word helpful and when is it offensive? At the culmination of this debate, it might be easier to just say the dreaded word: poor. It tends to make the most sense, but the term is broad and relative to different situations. There are certain instances in which synonyms for “poor” are adequate. However, “poor” is ultimately the most effective term when it comes to describing a victim of poverty.

Political correctness is an overarching idea for choosing words so as not to offend people. The debate surrounding the necessity for political correctness is long-standing, and as Spencer Case states in What Kind Of Political Correctness Do We Want?, “not long after the term’s reintroduction and popularization, ‘political correctness’ became a major cultural fault line.” This idea is especially true in American politics. Political debates may not have much to do with everyday language, but Case brings about an interesting point; maybe being politically correct is less helpful than originally thought. There is a misconception about specific images and topics when a less blunt term is used to describe something — in this case, the topic of poverty. The culture of poverty, which is actually quite harsh in itself, is misconstrued and even lost when its “politically correct” neighbor is described instead. 

Case furthermore states that “language can always be made more sensitive, though it’s not clear it always should be. If the norms become too restrictive, or are enforced too severely, important discourse will be suppressed — especially when the norms are ideologically charged. How we should strike the balance between sensitivity and freedom in language is a central theme in debates about political correctness.” Again, the true meaning of a topic is lost in translation when one tries to soften its punch with a pillow phrase. “Low-income” certainly makes the audience more comfortable, but perhaps discomfort is what it takes when it comes to promoting action.

Poverty has obviously been around for ages, but the use of other terms to describe the phenomenon did not come until the mid-1900s. Author Jennifer Guerra, a writer for a Michigan news column, presents a graph in her article, Poor vs. low-income: Does it matter which word we use?, that shows the trends in the use of “low-income” and “poor” over a time period starting from 1500 all the way until 2010. Guerra describes the trends, explaining that “the Ngram Viewer only goes back to the 1500s … the word poor dates back as far as 1225 … poor has been around forever and low-income doesn’t show up in any real significant way until the 1960s.” “Low-income” was perhaps a response to the rise in human sensitivity, especially in light of the Civil Rights movement. However, nothing is wrong with the people of this time and, in fact, they might have still been more honest than the people in this current decade. Think about the outcomes of the honesty of the 1960s; the victories of the Civil Rights movement started with a person who was not afraid to say “white” and “black”. These are real, true words that would leave no one in the current age particularly warm inside. Perhaps by ditching the fluff of political correctness, we could start truly working to help those in poverty.

“Low-income” might be the most understandable of all the synonyms. The weighted average poverty threshold for a family of 4 in 2018 (the most recent census information) was $25,701. Simply put, any family of four below this number is defined as impoverished or low-income. When speaking about data concerning the socioeconomic status of a person or group of people and the outcomes correlated with it, “low-income” is a useful term. The word almost defines itself so there is no room for confusion or misinterpretation. Guerra receives constant feedback from readers who complain about her diction. In her article, she explains her writing process and her readers’ reactions to it, saying, “I often start with the word low-income, and then … use poor as the shorthand. Still, the majority of time, the folks who write in say they wish I would’ve solely used the words ‘low-income’.” Guerra’s readers, clearly offended by her word choices, serve as the perfect example of those people who make political correctness difficult. The author understands how using “low income” defines the subjects of the article and gives the readers more clarity. Overall, it makes the article more pleasing to read and allows for a more comfortable connotation. But even though Guerra uses “poor” without a deeper intention to moving peoples’ hearts, she still gets mail from people who do not agree with her diction. They are so distressed by the shorthand that they beg for a different term to used. Yet perhaps if they really wanted to solve poverty, they would use their discomfort to fuel their actions.

Oxfam author Gawain Kripke perfectly articulates the argument that “poor” is massively more useful and efficient than “low-income”. In his article “Poor” versus “low-income”: What term should we use?, Kripke starts by explaining why people so often want to use “low-income” or another synonym: it is believed to be more humanizing. Frankly, it sounds more positive while “‘the poor’ often denotes a great, undifferentiated mass.” “Poor” is general, and this is the great problem; at least “low-income” defines a part of the group of people in poverty. The “poor” encompasses countless different situations, such as having a home or not, having regular meals or not, quality of education, level of income, etc. For the purpose of clarification, it makes sense to use “low-income” for articles that are factual and use data about incomes of the poor specifically, but in any other example, it is not adept. The word “poor” covers all of the topics that can possibly be covered about those in poverty, so it is most efficient.

Kripke invokes pathos when he recounts why his viewpoint on the “low-income” versus “poor” debate changed. Starting at Oxfam as an editor, he constantly used to dash “poor” from writers’ drafts and replace it with a more humanizing word. Then, he began to question this decision because of the lightness of the synonyms. In his article, he distinguishes the moment he realized that “poor” is most effective, saying, “People who are poor are not just like me. They face totally different challenges and problems. They’re poor. Simple luxuries are out of reach. My morning latte costs twice what a poor person earns each day. Being poor is not an inconvenience or a transitory phase. Poverty is a crisis, a wrenching experience that quite literally means death for millions. So why would I try to minimize it? Why use an euphemism?” This entire quote is perfect proof of the effectiveness of “poor”. The use of the term makes people uncomfortable because being poor is, in fact, uncomfortable. The images that “poor” brings to mind change mindsets and cause guilt. Nobody likes to be made to feel unhappy. Yet, sometimes it is important to be displaced from the grips of comfort because it is in discomfort that people take action.

The “low-income” versus “poor” debate is a waste of time in relation to the goal of the use of these words. If they are meant to be written in articles or given in speeches, then ultimately, the objective is to put an end to poverty. Deciding which word to use takes time away from action. The end of the debate is simple: using the term “poor” to describe the poor is most effective because it encompasses all the “parts” of poverty while “low-income” applies only to one section of the poverty discussion. “Poor” is intense and it should be because it reflects the action it influences. Poverty is a crisis: we should treat it like one. It is time to stop dancing around the controversy and take action, to face the problem head-first. Saying “poor” is hard, but being uncomfortable is the first step to moving in the correct direction. So say it, yell it, and scream it at the top of your lungs everyday. Saying “poor” gives the poor a voice. When talking for them, “low-income” is not going to scratch the surface of or for all the people suffering in our world.


Case, Spencer.  “What Kind of Political Correctness Do We Want?” Medium. Arc Digital Media, May 9, 2019.

Guerra, Jennifer. “Poor vs. low-income: Does it matter which word we use?” state of opportunity. state of opportunity, June 10, 2015.

Kripke, Gawain. “‘Poor’ versus ‘low-income’: What term should we use?” Oxfam. Oxfam America Inc, January 15, 2015.

U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Thresholds for 2018 by Size of Family and Number of Related Children Under 18 Years. U.S. Census Bureau. Novemebr 15, 2019. Data Spreadsheet.

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